About the size of an Eastern Blue Bird, the Wood Thrush is a small, reddish-brown bird whose color descends into spots on its white chest and belly. Weighing about 40-50 grams, this reclusive bird uses its song to establish its territory in the early mornings. Then, it descends into the forest to forage, scratching up invertebrates or plucking ripe berries from native shrubs. The shells of snails are especially beneficial to Wood Thrushes who need the extra calcium to reinforce the durability of their turquoise-colored eggs.
The Wood Thrush is perhaps best known for its haunting, flute-like “ee-oh-lay” song in which it simultaneously harmonizes two separate notes from different branches of its voicebox. It is ultimately “singing a duet with itself.”
If you live in Georgia, you start to hear the Wood Thrush’s song in the early spring when it has just returned from the world’s coffee lands, often flying more than 1,000 miles to get here. Recently, though, the Wood Thrush’s song has started to fade.
“If you looked at the data in metro Atlanta and you talked to people who have lived here, they say they used to hear them all the time,” says Atlanta Audubon Society Executive Director Nikki Belmonte.
Since 1966, Wood Thrush populations have experienced a 62 percent decrease across North America at a rate of decline of about 2 percent per year. While the Wood Thrush population is still estimated at about 11 million, its habitat is shrinking and unless “significant” efforts for habitat preservation are not made, it is at risk for extinction.
Shade-Grown Coffee Offers Habitat for Wood Thrushes
Like many neo-tropical migrant bird species, the Wood Thrush offers us a direct connection to Central American coffee lands, as well as clear action-items on how to preserve its species. Buy shade-grown coffee and plant native species, the Atlanta Audubon Society tells us.
“The Wood Thrush is a great example of how birds have been declining, why they’ve been declining and what opportunities there are to make life better for them here,” said Ms. Belmonte.
The conversion of forests into agricultural land and their pilfering for firewood destroy wildlife habitat in countries like Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Habitat destruction means neo-tropical migratory birds like the Wood Thrush have a harder time finding food sources that help them prepare for the average 1,340-mile journey they make across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer breeding grounds in the U.S.
But the multi-layered tree canopy that shade-grown coffee farms offer can be an “ideal” wintering habitat for Wood Thrushes, offering a host of insects and fruits for feeding. “Those vertical layers are how the Wood Thrush survives,” Ms. Belmonte said.
Habitat loss is also a concern in the U.S. as forests get converted into residential and commercial properties. Tall buildings with reflective glass are especially confusing, and many migratory birds will die when they collide directly with buildings, thinking the reflection of sky or trees are actually ahead of them, rather than behind.
Other domestic threats to the Wood Thrush include: outdoor cats, which kill more than 2 billion birds in the U.S. each year; Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds; and acid rain, which takes the necessary calcium Wood Thrushes normally get from invertebrates out of the soil.
Atlanta Bird Fest Talks Species Preservation with New Audiences
Developing tangible actions to preserve the Wood Thrush habitat has been a focus for the Audubon Society in 2017 and 2018, coinciding with the group’s efforts to grow its membership and increase conservation across the state.
The Atlanta Audubon organized native plant sales in mid-April to help get Wood Thrush-friendly plants such as: Beautyberry, Elderberry, Hearts-a-bustin, Spicebush, Silky Dogwood and Serviceberry, into backyards and home gardens throughout the state.
It also organized the annual Atlanta Bird Fest, a series of educational events held across the state in the spring that help encourage conservation and bring awareness to the seasonal migration of birds back to Georgia.
Inspired by a similar event organized by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Audubon group, Atlanta Bird Fest activities span over several weeks and offer creative ways for both new and seasoned birders to engage in birding. The event has helped increase membership by more than 25 percent since Bird Fest started three years ago.
This year’s Atlanta Bird Fest began on April 14, and will conclude Sunday, May 20, with a talk from Janisse Ray, environmental writer and activist living in South Georgia, who is well known for her books The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food and The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
Other Bird Fest events this year have included Birding 101 classes; an “Owl Prowl” night-hike to identify owl calls near the Chattahoochee River; a “Wine & Warbler” outing in the North Georgia mountains, a canoeing and kayaking trip that included birding and a day-trip to Americus to learn about shade-grown coffee chez Café Campesino.
This intersection of education and conservation makes birding accessible to new audiences. “There are a lot of people out there with different interests that can do good things for birds,” said Dottie Head, director of memberships and communications at Atlanta Audubon. “While we’re viewed as the Audubon bird people, one of the best ways we can help the Wood Thrush is to add native plants to our landscapes. This gives us something in common with the gardeners. Our shared interests make us natural partners.”
Ms. Belmonte echoed her sentiments. “There’s hope in forming new relationships. If we combine our forces here, we really have a good thing going on, even though we may come at it from completely different backgrounds.”
“Seeing birds and getting outside- not getting lost in despair- remembering to enjoy the nature that we do have. That’s important too,” she added.
Café Campesino has supplied fair trade, organic, shade-grown coffee to the Atlanta Audubon Society for more than 15 years. In 2017, Café Campesino worked with Atlanta Audubon to repackage their coffee. The new look uses artwork created by David Hale for an earlier Atlanta Bird Fest. It’s a drawing of a Wood Thrush.